Balbir Singh Dance Company - Yorkshire-based but with a global appeal

There are some artists and theatre companies in our midst that have been slowly and quietly creating genuinely international reputations here in Yorkshire.

One such company is BSDC, otherwise known as Balbir Singh Dance Company and where we land this week on the virtual tour of our theatre companies.

We are blessed to have some seriously impressive dance outfits based in West Yorkshire which take the name of dance in Yorkshire around the world. None more so than BSDC.

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The company is very much created in the image of the man who leads it and someone who is truly one of our own.

“The company’s work is defined by my identity being influenced by many brilliant heritages – Yorkshire, UK, India and South Asia. BSDC’s work is thoroughly contemporary, exploring universal themes of difference, mutual attraction and synthesis in a highly modern, accessible way,” says Singh.

What’s wonderful about BSDC is that it represents something many modern British people feel – a multiplicity of identity. Few of us feel and are happy to be defined by a single trait.

The man who makes the company identifies strongly with that notion.

“A contemporary trained choreographer, I spent many years studying the classical Indian dance form of Kathak. I like to combine western and Indian dance and music styles in our shows and always to push Kathak forward,” says Singh.

Of all the companies I have spoken to during this lockdown series of profiles, Singh was the one who was perhaps most interested in talking about the philosophy of why his company exists. The company has created many dance works that thousands across Yorkshire – and the world – have seen, but for Singh the ‘why’ behind his company is as important as the what it creates.

“My favourite new word is ‘glocal’. We are local and global – our work stretches across the world and across the street. I’m always a lad from Bradford and a Punjabi boy,” he says.

“Also, we are more than dance. We love the overlap between dance and different disciplines – visual art, music, sport and science. For example, we’ve recently been working with ice skaters, bikers and synchronised swimmers.

"It’s my idea of diversity. We love collaborations – currently we are the dance company in residence at the Billingham International Festival of World Dance. I’m plotting new partnerships in Bradford and Leeds. I like the creative spark of responding to other worlds.”

After training at the Leeds-based Northern School of Contemporary Dance, Singh worked initially as a freelance dancer and choreographer before setting up his own company.

He took the Field of Dreams approach. “I loved the idea of running my own company. No-one was doing what I wanted to do, in respect to Kathak and contemporary. I went through a few iterations before I settled on the name Balbir Singh Dance Company – and it seemed to work with commissions coming from across the country from festivals to venues to museums.”

And how. In 2012 the company created the large-scale Cultural Olympiad show Synchronised in 2012 set in a swimming pool with a cast of over 150.

“That was a baptism by fire and I felt I gained ten years of learning as an artist through making that work. The sheer boldness and audacity of it – thinking back now, naivety can be a good thing – we just went for it. It opened the door to a whole new way of working and collaboration with sport and expanded who the audience for the work could be.”

He went on to make climate based piece called The Boy with the Rollerblades, featuring Olympic skater Gary Beacom playing a character who can no longer skate because all the ice in the world has melted. Most recently, Singh has been in the lucky position to be able to continue to create work during the pandemic.

“The Two Fridas is a special one for our times about the parallel lives of painters Frida Kahlo from Mexico and Amrita Sher-Gil from India. The theme ‘united yet apart’ sums up present times,” he says.

These days the company has a home at Leeds-based Yorkshire Dance, even though the name of BSDC is seen around the world, it always takes Yorkshire with it.

Actual travel across the globe is, obviously, limited at the minute, but how does Singh feel about the future.

“Theatre and dance will be different in some aspects and the same in others. Digital has come into its own but I believe audiences will come back. Audiences have been coming to performances for thousands of years, technophobes like me will be newly adept at using Zoom.

“Professionally, I can’t wait to get back into in-person making and presenting. I believe that post-pandemic everyone will be more aware that artists – freelancers in particular – are people with families and bills to pay. Directors and managers in the buildings have had their eyes open. Inequalities within society and within our industry have been massively exposed,” he says.

It’s something I’ve heard over and again – that yes, this has been the most difficult time the creative industries have faced in many generations, but there are also lessons to be learned.

As we emerge, hopefully, from the pandemic, the hope is that companies like BSDC will still be here and still thrive because we’re going to need them more than ever.

Finding light in the darkness

Balbir Singh has found some light in the darkness of this year.

“There have been surprises in the crisis. I’ve been teaching on a multi-generational international online course with my Guru Pratap Pawar and Kathak dancers from around the world.

This is something I wouldn’t have had the time to do pre-pandemic. Distance is no longer a barrier to us learning and growing as artists. I’m exploring new possibilities to preserve and develop traditional long-standing art forms through a new acceptance of digital creation, collaboration and distribution.”